FREE FOR ALL: To address childhood hunger, schools enact no-cost breakfast and lunch programs

  • Seamus O'Connell, 9, of Corinth, finishes his chocolate milk as his grandmother, Barbara Hanson, of Corinth, helps herself to a carrot from his tray at Waits River Valley School in Corinth, Vt., Oct. 3, 2019. With 74% of the student population eligible for free or reduced lunch, the school provides free breakfast, lunch and snack to all students in the school through a Universal Meals program. It was grandparents day at the school. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Clockwise from top left, Loretta Cushing, of Williamstown, eats school lunch with her grandson Sammy Robtoy, 7, and second grade classmates Gabe Del Frari, 7, and Ethan St. Martin at the Waits River Valley School in Corinth, Vt., Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. It was grandparents day at the school in East Corinth, Vt., Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019, an annual event that welcomes grandparents to visit and eat lunch with the students. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • First grader Riley Gelsleichter, of Topsham, is served a piece of fresh pineapple with his lunch at Waits River Valley School in Corinth, Vt., Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. The day's meal was marinated roasted bone-in chicken, peas and carrots, mashed potatoes and gravy, scratch baked rolls, pineapple and cranberry bars. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Bob Hildebrand, of food service provider The Abbey Group, is food service director for eight schools including Waits River Valley School in Corinth, Vt., Hildebrand drains boiled potatoes as his colleague Karen Norkeveck prepares to mash them during lunch at the school Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. They serve meals to about 200 students in grades kindergarten through eight daily. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Waits River Valley School Principal Carlotta Perantoni serves lunch to sixth graders Chase Montandon, 11, of Waits River, left, and A.J. Pushee, 11, of Topsham, second from left, during grandparents day in Corinth, Vt., Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. It is the school's sixth year providing free meals to all students regardless of their ability to pay. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/5/2019 10:38:05 PM
Modified: 10/7/2019 2:49:12 PM

EAST CORINTH — Students at Waits River Valley School have to remember to bring their books and homework assignments when they leave for school in the mornings, but they don’t need to pack a lunch.

Through a program known as universal meals, the 230 students in the K-8th grade school that serves the Orange County communities of Corinth and Topsham can eat both breakfast and lunch at school for free, regardless of their family income level.

Before the school adopted the program — which has been funded by the USDA’s National School Lunch Program’s community eligibility provision — five years ago, Waits River Valley School Principal Carlotta Simonds-Perantoni said she had to chase after families to pay their bills and tell students with bills owed to restrict their meal selections to the salad bar.

“It’s a horrible feeling,” she said.

She said recalling the experience of restricting what students could eat made her nauseous.

Now that meals are free for all, Simonds-Perantoni instead encourages all the students to eat school meals.

“It’s about a family,” she said. “It’s time to eat, we all eat.”

Now all the schools in the Orange East Supervisory Union — including those in Newbury, Bradford, Thetford and Wells River — are considering following the Waits River Valley School’s lead in providing free breakfasts and lunches to all students regardless of income. In doing so, they hope to ensure that students have food to eat, while eliminating the stigma that can go along with free meals and avoiding the problem of trying to make families pay off debt.

By this time next year, there’s a “better than average chance that all our schools will be offering no-cost meals to all of our students,” Orange East Assistant Superintendent Bruce Williams said at a meeting of the Hunger Council of the Upper Valley last week.

The council, which includes members of public and nonprofit groups working to address food insecurity in the region, meets quarterly.

At this point, about a quarter of Vermont’s schools have moved to a universal meal model, said Anore Horton, executive director of the nonprofit Hunger Free Vermont, during the council’s meeting on Wednesday. In that way, free meals are available to about 16,400 students around the state, she said.

Horton shared recent research by the University of Vermont that found that staff at schools that have adopted universal free meal programs have seen benefits such as increased student readiness to learn, reduced financial stress on families and improvements in the schools’ social climate.

“Reaching kids where they are in institutional settings (is) one of the easiest things to significantly reduce hunger and malnutrition in our state,” Horton said.

To make a universal free meal program work, some schools like Waits River Valley qualify for the federal community eligibility provision that was created by the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and made available to schools across the country in 2014. It allows eligible schools — those that have more than 40% of students that qualify for free meals — to be reimbursed from the USDA at the higher free rate for a certain percentage of meals.

Other schools use another option called “provision 2,” which reimburses schools based on the rate of participation of students in different income categories, with the highest rate of reimbursement for those who eat free meals and lowest for paid.

In some cases, students can qualify for free school meals if they already participate in other entitlement programs such as 3SquaresVT, known as food stamps, or SNAP in New Hampshire, and Reach Up. In addition, children who are homeless, in foster care or whose parents are migrant workers also qualify.

In traditional meal programs, families have to fill out forms demonstrating that they have incomes below 130% of the federal poverty level, or $33,475 for a family of four, in order to qualify.

In Vermont, the state covers the cost of reduced-price meals so that students whose families have incomes of up to 185% of the federal poverty level, or $47,638 annually for a family of four, can also receive free meals.

This year, Waits River Valley is moving to the provision 2 system because it just missed eligibility for the community eligibility provision. The school has 39.7% of students who qualify for free meals this year, Simonds-Perantoni said.

Despite the change, Simonds-Perantoni said she and the school board are committed to continuing to provide free meals to all through the program, and they don’t anticipate running a deficit.

If by some chance the school does lose money on the program, which costs about $150,000 annually, Simonds-Perantoni said she’s confident that the community will support it. The message she’s heard is “we’re glad to feed children.”

Schools that have a smaller percentage of students that qualify for free and reduced price meals have to rely on tax dollars to make up the difference between what the federal program will reimburse them for and what it costs to feed all students. But many school meal programs are already being underwritten by taxpayers.

Thetford Elementary School, where about 22% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, budgets about $12,000 annually to cover the difference between the cost to run its program and the revenues the program generates through meal sales, Thetford School Board Chairwoman Shannon Darrah said in a Friday phone interview.

“I don’t think we’ve ever really broken even on it,” she said.

The percentage of students who qualify for free lunch in Thetford is not high enough to qualify the school for community eligibility provision, but Darrah said the board is looking at the numbers and in the preliminary stages of seeing what a universal free meal program would look like there.

“We would like to try and do it,” she said. “It’s just a matter of how.”

She and other school leaders worry that some students who could benefit from school meals aren’t getting them, she said.

“For whatever reason people don’t feel comfortable filling out that form,” she said. “...To be able to give everybody a nice, good lunch during the day seems like the right thing to do if we’re able to do it.”

Oxbow Union High School, where about 54% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, had a large number of unpaid lunch bills last year, said Williams, the OESU assistant superintendent. As a result, the school board worked hard to get families to pay, threatening not to let students participate in extracurricular activities or walk at graduation unless their bills were paid, he said.

That experience at Oxbow has motivated the board, which has since merged to include Bradford and Newbury elementary schools, to consider shifting to a universal meal model, Williams said.

At this point, the school boards are in the process of gathering information about what it would cost to make such a move, he said.

For families, the cost of school meals can add up to hundreds of dollars per child over the course of a school year.

At Oxbow, which contracts with the Enosburg Falls, Vt.-based food service provider The Abbey Group, a full-priced breakfast that might include either cereal and an English muffin, a whole grain bagel and cream cheese or a cinnamon bun, along with fresh fruit, juice and milk costs $1.75.

A full-priced lunch that might include either Shepherd’s pie, a yogurt parfait, a sandwich, a salad or pizza, along with fresh fruit, juice and milk is $3.

“Each year, more families struggle with financing the cost associated with school meals,” Oxbow principal Jean Wheeler said in an email. “With our current system, we have no way of determining the extent to which financial burden prevents our students from eating school meals. As a school leader, my time is better spent enriching learning experiences rather than making collection phone calls.”

Wheeler also said that universal meals could expand opportunities for work-based learning and the use of locally-grown food in school meals.

“Universal free school meals will improve health, social climate, participation, engagement, and motivation; and, will increase community involvement in our schools — a vital component to economic development,” she said.

Concerns about equity have brought the issue of universal free lunch to the attention of school leaders at another school in Orange East Supervisory Union, Blue Mountain Union School, a pre-K to 12 school serving Groton, Ryegate and Wells River that is located in Wells River.

The effort there began two years ago when staff read Overcoming the Achievement Gap Trap by Anthony Muhammad, said the school’s preK-6 grade principal Scott Blood.

“This book provoked several discussions around equity,” Blood said in an email. “Universal Lunch became a topic that our staff was interested in pursuing. Since then, some of our staff members passionate about the topic began working together to develop a plan.”

Now a group calling itself the “Whole Child Outreach Team,” which consists of school staff, parents, community members and area health care providers, is aiming to begin offering free meals as soon as next year, Blood said.

“We will be working closely with the board throughout budget season to weigh the options surrounding this endeavor,” Blood said.

Elsewhere in the Upper Valley some other schools also are taking steps in this direction.

Bluff Elementary School in Claremont, where 51% of students qualify for free meals, is offering meals to all students at no charge this year for the first time through the community eligibility provision, said Debra Belanger, The Abbey Group’s food service director for Claremont area schools.

It’s still early, but Belanger said participation in the program is definitely up this year.

Like Oxbow, Claremont schools have struggled with collecting school meal debt from families in recent years, accumulating amounts due of tens of thousands of dollars. Officials there have said they suspect many of the students who have accumulated debt would qualify for free or reduced lunch, but for one reason or another haven’t completed the necessary paperwork.

A few other Upper Valley schools are wading in to providing free meals to all by starting with breakfast.

Such is the case at Randolph and Braintree, Vt. elementary schools, said Karen Russo, the Orange Southwest School District’s food service director.

“We get more and more kids every day wanting to eat the breakfast,” Russo said.

Though the reimbursement for the meals doesn’t quite cover the cost, Russo said it’s worth it.

It’s a “good feeling for us to serve the kids,” Russo said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

So far the numbers haven’t worked out for the other schools in the district — Brookfield Elementary and Randolph Union High School — because they have lower percentages of students that qualify for free lunches, she said.

“It’s a wonderful program,” she said. “I wish I could do it for all my schools.”

Valley News Staff Writer Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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